With Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement, there’s now a surprise spot open in the championship winning team. So who are our contenders to partner Lewis Hamilton in 2017?
Unsurprisingly, in the week since learning of Nico Rosberg’s decision to leave Formula 1, an abundance of names have been attached to his now vacant seat. Because who wouldn’t want the opportunity to race in arguably the best car on the grid. Arguable because there are significant rule changes coming into play in 2017 which may (hopefully) upset the new world order, just as it did in 2014.
Both Mercedes and the drivers in question are going to have to weigh up the pros and cons of taking on this monumental task but I figured why not weigh it up myself?
There are many names on the grid who haven’t been bandied around and with good reason. The likes of Palmer, Ocon, Magnussen, Grosjean, Nasr & Ericsson all either have solid contracts for next season and/or not enough experience to warrant a top drive just yet.
Kimi Raikkonen, it is fair to assume, will retire from F1 at the end of the 2017 season and I don’t see him wanting the hassle of changing teams and having the drama that will inevitably come with it. He’s happy where he is, he’s not going anywhere.
I haven’t seen Daniel Ricciardo’s name crop up all that much and it’s not too surprising. I think he’s happy where he is and he’s comfortable with the team and with his mechanics. He considers this season to be his best so far so clearly feels like he’s on the up; why mess with that?
I’ve seen suggestions that maybe Felipe Massa could come out of retirement to take the seat but I don’t think this is a possibility. He still has the speed and the passion but is clear that he is happy with his decision to retire and he had such a wonderful send-off that I don’t see him going back on it, even for a chance in a Mercedes.
Probably the favourite at the moment, it has to be said. He’s a Mercedes junior so he’s familiar with the team and has done testing with them so is also familiar with the car. DTM champion in 2015 so a proven winner and also points scorer for Manor in 2016. He would be the ultimate safe choice for Mercedes. But is he ready for the seat? He claims he is but who would claim not to be when such an opportunity was dangled in front of you? At the United States Grand Prix this year, he demonstrated a certain belligerence in ignoring team orders to turn off his engine when he spun into a gravel trap, instead jeopardizing the integrity of the car by insisting on driving it back. Not a great selling point to a top team.
And is it what fans want to see? With Mercedes being so dominant these last 3 years, it’s been a relief that at least the two teammates have been on equal terms and fighting it out between them. Will that be the case with Hamilton vs. Wehrlein? I think it would be foolish to think so. This line-up would just be inviting a #1 & #2 driver status which is not what we want out of a top team. So while it’s the safe option, it’s also risking being the least entertaining.
I’ll admit to being surprised at seeing Sebastian’s name crop up so much with regards to this seat. Vettel has made it common knowledge since he first joined Ferrari in 2015 that he is in it for the long haul and I don’t believe that a vacant seat at Mercedes is going to change that. He has something to prove to himself, if no one else, and that’s that he can help make Ferrari champions again. It’s a dream he’s had since childhood. Going to Mercedes and winning championships would prove nothing. After all, was he not consistently accused of only being a champion because of the car? This wouldn’t exactly assuage any of these suggestions. Yes, Ferrari have had a poor season and the loss of James Allison to the team and the unhelpful threats from Sergio Marchionne will not help matters but Sebastian’s not going anywhere. He has no reason to, yet.
Regarded as the newest ‘future legend’ of the sport by many, having Verstappen in a Mercedes alongside the likes of Lewis Hamilton is something that would leave many a fan drooling at the potential (myself not included, it has to be said). Is there a real likelihood of this happening? I don’t think so, for various reasons. From Mercedes’ point of view, having two such drivers in the same team would probably prove very volatile in no time at all. If they thought they had it bad with Lewis and Nico, this would raise the bar for drama even higher. They both have some of the most intense fans I have ever seen or encountered and the fallout from anything could be immense and I’m not sure Mercedes are going to want to invite that kind of atmosphere into the team. From Max’s perspective, he’s made himself comfortable at Red Bull and it’s obvious that they are very keen on keeping him. Also, there’s the definite possibility (I’d even go so far as to say probability) that Red Bull will be championship contenders next year so there’s not much to persuade him to leave.
The name that people are the most interested in. Could Mercedes really consider this, knowing the history between Lewis and Fernando back in 2007? Granted, a lot has happened since then and they are both very different people but they are both still fierce competitors and I feel it would be foolish to believe this wouldn’t be a tumultuous pairing. We’ve seen a very different Fernando these last couple of years in McLaren but how much of that is ‘character development’ and how much is simply the fact that the car isn’t competitive or that Jenson brought out a different quality in him? There have been moments later in this season (i.e. the US Grand Prix) where we have seen that sharpness reappear and it’s clear that he still has the motivation and also the fierceness to win. Which is great from the fans’ perspective and I can’t deny that this team would certainly be all kinds of entertaining but I’m really not sure that Mercedes want to invite that kind of drama into their garage. Plus, there is also the fact that Fernando has a habit of making terribly timed decisions (and being reminded of them constantly) so it would just be his luck to take the Mercedes seat only to find that they have lost their edge with the rule changes and McLaren actually look in a better position. I could definitely see Fernando delaying any potential negotiations until winter testing begins and I’m not sure Mercedes would want to wait that long before committing someone.
I’ll be honest, Valtteri is probably my favourite choice for the seat. I feel like it’s the perfect balance of safe and exciting. He has plenty of experience in Formula 1 at this point; he’s fast, he’s consistent, qualifies well, he ticks a lot of boxes. He has the perfect Finnish demeanor of not being interested in drama and, while it may not make for the most fun, energetic team, I think tensions would be greatly eased. Valtteri also has the added benefit of Toto Wolff being involved in his career so that gives him the extra nudge closer that others may be lacking. The one problem I do have with it is where it leaves Williams. With Lance Stroll joining the team, moving straight up from F3, Williams could really do with an experienced driver to help provide feedback with all the new rule changes coming into place. I’m not sure who would be available to take that seat should Bottas move up to Mercedes and that could be very damaging to a team who have fallen behind where they would like to be already. Having been with the team for as long as he has, I don’t doubt that Valtteri would feel a responsibility for the team which might back the decision difficult for him should it arise. But I would love to see him get the opportunity in a top team.
Over the last couple of seasons, I have become a big fan of Carlos. Data showed that there was little between him and Max while they were teammates at Toro Rosso and he has the benefit (from a team perspective) of being less problematic on track. He has the speed and despite having a car that definitely trailed off thanks to the undeveloped engine, he pulled out some great performances. He’s exciting to watch, he’s reliable, consistent and hard-working. But is he experienced enough? In my opinion, I would say yes but a team like Mercedes would possibly want another season from him and in a car that is more competitive. The problem for Carlos is, will there be a seat at Red Bull any time soon? They look pretty comfortable with Ricciardo and Verstappen and there are Red Bull juniors like newly crowned GP2 champion Pierre Gastly waiting in the wings for an F1 drive. I’d hate to see Carlos become yet another victim of Toro Rosso’s cutthroat rotation.
Speaking of Toro Rosso, we should mention Daniil. Would Mercedes consider him for the seat? Would he even be interested in going? It’s hard to see him returning to the sister team after everything that has happened and, with that being the case, he will need to find a home in another team sooner rather than later. He’s proven that he can get podiums and that he is a fast driver. But there is also an inconsistency there. Granted, it’s hard to judge someone on a season such as this because it took him several races to get back into a good headspace but it’s still not a great advert for a top team. I think Daniil’s best bet for his future would be with a mid-field team like Force India should the opportunity arise. He won’t be Russian to Mercedes, that’s for sure (…sorry).
He has a contract with Force India for next year, this we know. But a team like Mercedes could certainly buy people out of their contracts so he could still be a possibility. And he’s definitely an appealing prospect. Three podiums in 2016 and with many impressive performances thanks to his top class tyre management. He’s racey, he’s great to watch, he has experience of working in a top team (even if they weren’t at the top of their game at the time) and I don’t doubt that he could win races given the right equipment. But Perez is clearly very fond of Force India and has made the team his home, it’s hard to see him leaving. But I hope he doesn’t pass up an opportunity to move into a top team because he deserve it and they don’t come up often.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Hulkenberg, really. At one time in his career he was linked to the Ferrari seat (to the point where paperwork was written up and everything) and nothing came of it and somehow he is still waiting on a podium. And then he makes the bold decision to join Renault in a time where they are struggling to get back to their old form. It seemed like a good move, a move with the future in mind because you aren’t going to win championships in a customer team like Force India. But I can’t help but think that he would have been a top candidate for the Mercedes seat had he not just signed that contract. He’s got plenty of experience and is a great driver who just seems to suffer the most bad luck of anyone in the mid-field. Like Perez, I would like to think a top seat won’t pass him by because it would be a waste of talent. Otherwise, I hope Renault reach the heights they have seen in the past.
Bit of tricky one, really. Recently retired but in a kind of…lacklustre way as it was originally deemed a sabbatical and became less and less so as Abu Dhabi drew nearer. Would Jenson like to come back to Formula 1? I’m really not sure. I think he seems happy to try his hand at other things but it would be hard to deny the draw of a Mercedes seat. Especially as Mercedes used to be Brawn GP, his championship winning team. And of course, he has experience with being Lewis Hamilton’s teammate and (until Rosberg did it this season) was the only teammate to have ever outscored him in a season. I feel like it would be a great combination as they would race each other hard but there would be less of the drama because Jenson doesn’t have time for it. It might even help the atmosphere within the team. But I personally don’t see it happening. I think Jenson is happy with his decision to leave the sport and would rather see one of the younger drivers take the seat and inject some unpredictability into the series.
I think the top candidates are probably Pascal Wehrlein (as the safe option), Valtteri Bottas (as the neutral option) and Fernando Alonso (the winning option). Which one do I think they’ll go with? Part of me thinks that if it was going to be Pascal, they would have announced it already seeing as he is technically already on the team so they must be weighing up their options carefully. I somehow don’t see them risking Alonso, at least.
All I hope is that we get good racing. I don’t want Lewis to just scamper away with another title, I want a challenger that can fill Nico Rosberg’s shoes and I think they’re going to find it harder than people might think. Because of course it’s not just about the racing. It’s the interviews, the presence, the way they rally the team around them, the way they keep morale up. Nico was such a strong presence within that team, I hope whoever has the task of taking over from him has what it takes.